THURSDAY OCTOBER 6, 2005

13:17 GMT-3

MAZ MOREAU

SEVEN TREES FARM | MERIDIA FALLS

Stephanie turns the steering wheel and pulls onto the drive. She glances up at the swinging sign for Seven Tree’s Farm above us; even though we’re in the warm interior of her silver BMW, my mind can’t help substituting the hum of the AC for the horror-movie-like creak of the swinging sign. I flinch, like someone just scratched their nails down a chalkboard.

“Are you a hundred percent sure your stepfather won’t be home?” Stephanie asks, turning her gaze to the farmhouse in the distance.

“He’s never here in the daytime. Don’t worry.”

Stephanie glances at me. “What about your mom… and stepsister?”

Thoughts of Mom’s angry face flash in my mind, as does her venomous tone from yesterday. “If you don’t come home tonight… then you might as well not come home again!”

I shudder at the memory of the heated phone conversation, although I can’t see a pile of my things outside the farmhouse where she threatened to leave them — another of her empty threats… or maybe she remembered I know about her and the farmhand.

Mom is forced from my mind, replaced by the flashing blue eyes of Candy. The memory of her sinister face makes me shudder. How can she be an Enchanter… like me? How can she be caught up in this — whatever this is?

I shake away thoughts of my dysfunctional family. “Pull into the stables courtyard,” I say, pointing to the right. “Just in case.”

Stephanie follows my directions and parks the car in pretty much the same spot that Logan parked the first time he dropped me home after school — what feels like years ago now.

As the car engine cuts off, I turn to Stephanie. “So, are you gonna tell me why you dragged me away from the nice warm cinema?” I ask, flinging my arms out. “What do you want in this godforsaken hellhole of a farm? Is it Candy?”

“I’m not here for your stepsister… not yet, anyway.” She sighs. “If I tell you, you can’t tell anyone until I say it’s safe to do so.”

More freaking secrets! I must have “therapist” stamped on my forehead with the amount of secrets people seem to keep telling me. I rub my wrist — rubbing over the still red thumbprint left by Stephanie’s friend Angela; a “blood promise” Vicki called it. Does Stephanie know about it?

“Apples!” Stephanie says, snapping my mind away from thoughts of my mini-trip to Paris. She pulls out a folded newspaper page from her inside pocket — a front page from Penny’s Bizarre News Bulletin paper. She taps her finger at a picture of an apple with a carved spiral.

“Green Willow Farm,” I say, the name in the front-page story catches my attention. “Didn’t they go up in flames the other day?”

Stephanie nods. “Yes… I think to cover up what had happened to these apples… The spirals.” She glances out of the window to the east orchard, visible through the stone archway between the stables. “I want to get one of Isaac Steele’s famous Red Perrins.”

“You could have saved yourself a journey and got a pound of them from the grocery on Main Street,” I say, unable to hide a small laugh.

Stephanie’s lip twitches into a brief grin. “Yes, I know. But I want to get my hands on an unprocessed apple — straight from the tree, so to speak.”

I push open the car door and point at the orchard. “Help yourself. There’s a ton of them over there.”

I climb out of the car, the chill in the air instantly biting at my skin. My cheeks tingle as I wrap my scarf around my neck.

“It’s colder than the Yorkshire Dales in the middle of winter… and that’s saying something,” Stephanie says as she pulls her hood up over her brown hair.

I shake my head and laugh. “Well, Meridia Falls in the winter would give the Arctic a run for its money.”

Stephanie slips the newspaper page back into her pocket. “We paid a visit to Green Willow Farm. The spiral apples had peaked the interest of Mr. Church.” She draws out the end of Church’s name like she can’t shake it off her tongue. “There were signs it wasn’t a normal arson attack.”

“Magic!” I say, leading the way through the archway between the stables.

“Yes… Good guess,” Stephanie says, catching me up. Her icy breath blows like a steam train. “I guess you’re getting used to your new life in our world now.”

More than you know. I keep the thought to myself as we walk down the gravel path to the east orchard.

“You took Vicki to the farm… in her condition?” I ask as we walk.

Stephanie narrows her eyes. “Yes, I couldn’t stop her… Although after this morning, I think I will need to put my foot from now on.” She stops and takes out her phone, hesitating over the call button. “I’m so worried about her.”

I grab her arm. “Don’t worry. I’m sure Logan is looking after her.” My mind drifts back to the warm cinema. “Let’s get you some apples so we can get back to them.”

Stephanie slips her phone back in her pocket. “Green Willow Farm wasn’t the only apple orchard to be affected by mystery spirals.” She turns to me. “Miss Summers had police reports from several other apple farms around the world — all with similar cases of spirals appearing on apples.”

“Sounds like crop circles,” I say. “Probably a hoax.”

Stephanie nods. “Normally, I’d agree… if it wasn’t for the fact all of them were trying to produce a new kind of perennial apple—”

“Like Isaac Steel’s famous Red Perrins,” I say, cutting her off mid-sentence.

She nods. “And the fact that magic was involved in the attack at Green Willow Farm.”

Taking a step forward, she approaches the first row of trees, the deep red apples drawing her in like she’s been hypnotized — like Snow White or something.

A sudden thought jumps into my mind. “Hey, you don’t think Isaac used magic to make his apples, do you?”

Stephanie shrugs her shoulders as she plucks an apple from the nearest tree. She turns it around in her gloved hand. “I don’t know.” She walks towards me, tracing her finger in a spiral over the deep rep apple skin. “But spirals are a part of our Enchanter world, symbolic and…” she pauses. “Anyway, once we get our hands on a spiral apple too, we will be able to tell if anyone was using magic.”

She reaches up and grabs another two apples. Putting them in her pocket, she starts back up the path to the stables.

“Hey, are you okay to wait while I collect a change of clothes? I’d like to change and have a shower before we head off to Serenity Grove — that’s if Mom hasn’t burned all my clothes.” I pause as Candy’s flashing eyes jump back into my mind. “And just in case, Candy is home. After she attacked us yesterday, I’m not sure what she’s capable of.”

Stephanie nods, pulling her coat tighter around herself as we walk back under the stone archway.

“To be honest, I’m not sure what anyone is capable of in this town anymore,” I say, my voice fading away on the breeze.

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